20 Steps From Stardom

The secret is now out. I am a movie freak. I love watching movies:  Oscar contenders, independent ones, foreign ones, old ones that make me cry, scream and just laugh at the absurdity (I watched Jaws on a huge drive-in screen in the middle of a cornfield…Jaws! In the middle of a cornfield! Seriously?), animated shorts, even old 8 mm vacation reels. I love them all. To me, one of the best things is getting snowed in with Netflix and cable movies. And getting sick and having to stay at home all day? Heaven.

I just watched a documentary called “20 Feet From Stardom” about the backup singers whose talent helped lead singers achieve stardom. Some of them are well known, like Darlene Love, who sang vocals on many big hits of the 1960s like “Johnny Angel” and “The Poor Side of Town.” She worked with many legends of that time: Sam Cooke, Sonny and Cher, Elvis Presley, Marvin Gay, the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra. Other backup singers in the documentary include Merry Clayton, who sang with Mick Jagger, Ray Charles and Neil Young; and Judith Hill, a backup for Michael Jackson.

Think about it….how much attention is paid to these backup singers? According to the film, some of them have more vocal talent than the lead singer, yet they prefer to stay in the background, grinding out the hits, helping the star sound better and achieve success. Their job is to support and move the lead singer forward.

Well, isn’t this what your branch managers do?

Before I interviewed the branch managers for this issue’s cover story, I spoke to their bosses, the ‘lead singer’ if you will, and asked what skills they thought a branch manager should have. They responded with: leadership, industry knowledge, sales ability, organizational skills, willingness to learn, and above all, honesty and integrity. When I asked the managers what skill was most important for a branch manager, they said they must be good leaders, strong communicators, able to multi-task, set up route deliveries, supervise others, understand profit and loss, figure out inventory, know the industry, have a good sales track record, be able to complete tasks, have strong computer skills, and a bit of creativity helps. And that’s just the top of the list. Before he made it on his own, Luther Vandross sang backup for David Bowie. In the film, Luther describes the backup singer’s skillset: “The backup knows how to pull each gift together and make it a beautiful piece of jewelry.”

Mark Haun, president of Haun Welding Supply, voices the feelings of company owners when he says, “We quite literally give our managers the keys to the store. They do their best for the customer and for the company.” Ron Ruyle, president of Tyler Welders Supply, adds, “We feel comfortable when we go home at night that the store has been run well.” In the movie, Sting says of his own backup singer, “I think of her as a star, THE star. I put a spotlight on her and turn her loose.”

The branch managers highlighted in the cover story have an average age of 41. The youngest is 27. Most have risen through the ranks of the company, some were hired from other businesses. They all feed on competition and express an intense drive to beat other stores with their numbers.

They are leaders, salespeople, hot-shot drivers, inventory experts, motivators and problem solvers. And while they are the proverbial 20 feet from stardom (yours), they are the heart of your company, the gear helping the engine turn.

As the credits roll, the movie ends with the backups all singing the 1972 hit “Lean On Me.”

Gases and Welding Distributors Association
Carole Jesiolowski Meet the Author

Carole Jesiolowski is senior editor of GAWDA Media and executive vice president of Data Key Communications located in Syracuse, New York. She can be reached at 315-445-2347 and carole@weldingandgasestoday.org.